Brooms & Bird Flaps: Major Milestones In Fallen City

This has been a strange week to be developing a game about cleaning up a wrecked city full of angry people. Fallen City is our first (but not only) project, and it involves brooms, tea, anger, inspiration, and cats. It’s a commission by Channel 4 Education, who wanted us to create something which examined the value of living in a city. A British sort of city. That’s what we’ve done.

Fallen City is a place that has already been allowed to fall into ruin and dereliction. Its inhabitants are bored, frustrated, ultimately angry humanoid creatures, many of whom are so pissed off that they are in an near-comatose state. Others are boiling over with rage, and continue to destroy or block off parts of the city. The player’s job, then, is to find ways in which to dissolve this ennui and rage, to bring the city back to life from dereliction. Fallen City looks a bit like management games of old (perhaps a hint of Dungeon Keeper in there) but it’s actually a sort of puzzle game. Figuring which buildings to create from the ruins you renovate, based on the kinds of staff you have available, is the main challenge for the player. If you want sort out the problems in an entire district, then you’ll need to make the right decisions about what that area needs. Getting 100% out of a level means cleaning the whole thing up, and choosing the right skills to unlock all the abandoned streets and annexes.

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There’s a little more to it than this, however, because we tried to reflect the implications of things like Broken Windows Theory, and also everyday experiences about how people feel when faced with urban environments. Our little creatures – Angries, we call them – are hyper sensitive to ruination, and will become extremely miserable if exposed to too much dereliction and abandonment. Push them too far and their energy – their attention span – will fail, and they’ll retreat to somewhere they feel comfortable. They might need a bit of cheering up – through music and street performance, for example – before they’re ready to help out. By default the Angries aren’t particularly interested in anything, and a few of them are swollen purple with rage at the world, the world that has promised them so much and then denied them it.

Yes, we’re playing with some odd metaphors for a videogame, and that stuff is even more stark this week, but I think what we’re prodding has a few different layers. This isn’t just social, it’s also about the material, functional nature of what cities are: Machines for living in, battlesuits for surviving the future. Infrastructure, we’re arguing, is too easily overlooked, but it shouldn’t be because it is bound together with making life liveable. The Angries need to bring their Idea Yards and the Curry Pumps back online if they are to remember why their city is such a valuable place, and how all the stuff it already has in place – its roads and pipes and cables – exist to look after them. We bring those unnoticed physical aspects of the city into focus, and allow the player to bring them back to life, and remember how and why they make life liveable for city-dwellers.

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We’ve done an enormous amount of work to get to this stage – as is evidence by comparing the most recent images above with a shot from the prototype, below – and I’m regularly breathing sighs of relief as the other talented Big Robot members and contractors make huge strides towards completing the game each day. This week alone has been a torrent of bird flap noises, exploding cats, weird goblin noises, and even minor moments of emergence.

This is the first game I’ve made since I tried to put something together with a chum aged 14, so it’s been quite an experience.

And, yes, it’s all come into sharp focus this week. A week of terrible events in real British cities, and week where our own Fallen City hit a major milestone. It’s a proper game, now, and there’s a strangeness to it echoing events in the real world. The issues we’ve been mulling over in cartoon, digital form have come into stark clarity, and that makes me hope that the game seems appropriate and interesting when it appears for you to download (free on the internet). If nothing else, we’re now working on something shockingly relevant, and that alone has made me want to get it just right.

You’ll find out more about that when the game arrives early next year.

What We Are Building In Here

Last week Channel 4 announced the project that I’ve been describing, cryptically, as “Game One”. The proper working title is “Walking City”, although I suspect that too will change in the next couple of months. We’re describing it as a “strategic, urban puzzler”, but really it’s a game with genes from Dungeon Keeper, Animal Crossing, Theme Hospital, The Sims, and even Lemmings. It should – Gods of game development willing – be perfectly indie PC, with an interesting core game mechanic, funky lo-fi visuals, and a playful attitude.

Walking City is a project I came up with in collaboration with Alice Taylor at Channel 4, who was looking for games that might fulfill her educational remits for the indie game budget. I wanted to do something about the value of the future, and the value of cities, both of which seem, of late, to have been somewhat reduced in their placement on the stock market of our imagination. Creating a game that was about reclaiming a city came to mind, and this developed into something which will be both an interesting exercise in anti-dystopian playfulness, and an offbeat take on familiar ideas about strategy games. The Walking City is about starting with things in ruins. This is no blank slate, as you might expect with SimCity, but instead a catastrophe of cynicism and neglect. It’s about helping the people that remain in a collapsed civilization to pull themselves out of the hole. It’s also going to be a game about /influencing/ the people in the city, rather than simply telling them what to do, and it’s working on the idea that if you clean up and fix one thing in an environment than that will have a knock on effect for everything and everyone else in its area of effect. This throws up some really interesting design challenges, of course, particularly in how you keep such a system simple and comprehensible. It’s exactly the kind of thing that I find interesting about game development. Also, it’s one of the things I find interesting about education: finding ways of reaching people without being preachy, condescending, or basically rubbish.

Walking City is not without jeopardy, of course. We are planning on filling the city with many of the threats and destructive influences that real world cities throw up – and we’re doing that from the top and bottom ends of our imaginary society. Of course I’m all about the mechanical game, the systems, too, and I’m hoping it’ll be a decent challenge, as well as fulfilling the other criteria that a Channel 4 game is expected to meet. It’s about as exciting as an opening project could be, not least because the Channel 4 funding means we can tackle it without fear of not being able to complete it.

We’re building the game using Unity, an engine which RPS readers will be vaguely aware that James Carey and I have been dabbling with since we made the RPS game, Shotgunity. It’s been a bit of a surprise for me, since I have almost no practical skills whatever, finding that Unity is straightforward enough not just for me to follow what is going on, but to have some input at a technical level. Not only that, but it’s a solid way for us to manage the project, and to control versions via the asset server. We discovered all this this largely through our work on Game Two. I’m not even going to say what the working title for that game is, since it’s basically ridiculous, but I can explain a little about what the game is, and why we have been working on it.

Game Two was about warming up for the Channel 4 project, getting us familiar with Unity as a working environment, and working together on something. But it’s also about Big Robot being a bigger thing than one commissioned project. This is intended to be the start of something long-term, something that will allow me to investigate some of those ideas I’ve always suspected might be cool or interesting when I was working just as a journalist. Procedurally generated worlds, robots, survival, and plenty more besides. It’s a big game, and it’s going to take a long time to finish. So far, at least, we’re really enjoying it, but don’t expect to see much more than odd screenshots before the end of next year.

More, er, soon (ish).